Vincent attended public schools in the city, and in 1926 went to St. Bonaventure College in Allegany, New York. From 1928 he studied journalism at the University of Michigan. He later studied part-time at St. John's Law School and Columbia University, both in New York City.
Ottley worked for the Amsterdam News from 1931 to 1937. In 1943 he published New World A-Coming: Inside Black America, which described life for African Americans in Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s and 1930s. The book was adapted for radio.
During World War II Ottley reported from Europe for Liberty Magazine, PM, and the Pittsburgh Courier. He later worked for the Chicago Tribune, and for CBS and BBC radio.
Ottley's other published works include Black Odyssey: The Story of the Negro in America, No Green Pastures, and Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbot. Two were published posthumously: White Marble Lady in 1965, and The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History, 1626–1940 in 1967.
On April 27, 1941 Vincent married Gladys Tarr, but the marriage ended in divorce. Then he married Alice L. Dungey on February 14, 1951. He had a daughter Lynne.